On December 2–3, 2021, a meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council was held. Amid the unrelenting crisis in the Russia-West relations, any events that facilitate dialogue are worthy of positive assessment. Especially if these are face-to-face meetings in a state of “new normal”, the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it would be difficult to argue that the OSCE Ministerial Council adopted any breakthrough decisions aimed at resolving existing conflicts. This led to the accusation of the organization that it was “mired in petty agendas.” Lack of significant and publicly visible achievements of the OSCE in recent years seems to cast doubt on the institution’s ability to contribute to security on the continent. At the same time, it raises the question of whether the classical approach to assessing the organisation’s activities can be applied without due account of the modalities of its emergence.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe is not the most common example of a security institution. The OSCE’s consensus-based decision-making process and lack of international legal personality contribute to the fact that politicians and experts tend to emphasize the need to adhere to the norms and principles formulated within the framework of the organization, while at the same time criticizing it for inefficiency.
The origins of the OSCE’s peculiarities lie in the history of its establishment. The convening of the CSCE during the Cold War was prompted by the desire of representatives of the two opposing blocs to design norms for peaceful co-existence on the continent. Consequently, the solution of the fundamental issues was based on a consensus among all the participants.
Following the collapse of the socialist bloc, Moscow hoped that the CSCE/OSCE could emerge as the basis of a new international security architecture. Russia made proposals to empower the organisation through establishing a Permanent Council, increasing the role of the CSCE Troika, and creating working groups. However, the prospect that consensus decision-making be abandoned raised concerns in a number of smaller countries, and most Western representatives did not support the idea of transferring the leading role from NATO to the CSCE/OSCE .
Having lost its significance as a forum for interaction between the two opposing blocs but never becoming the basis for a new security architecture, the CSCE/OSCE had to imbue itself with a new identity. Due to the military engagements in the Balkans and the post-Soviet space, the organisation focused on several specific narrow areas, namely assistance in resolving conflicts, protecting human rights, developing democratic institutions and monitoring elections. The institute was designed to tackle new challenges, relying on old procedures. While this may have been effective in a hypothetical Common European Home, the OSCE’s response potential is limited in the context of real conflicts in Europe and increasing tensions between Russia and the West, all of which makes consensus-building difficult. It is therefore of particular interest to see how the organisation performs as a crisis mediator in the post-Soviet space.
The OSCE in Nagorno-Karabakh: In the Search of a New Role
The CSCE/OSCE has been involved in settling the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh since its active phase. Already in the 1990s, a three-element system was formed to work on its resolution, which included the Minsk Group led by the Co-Chairs, the High-Level Planning Group (HLPG) and the Personal Representative of the Chairperson-in-Office.
The preconditions for the Minsk Group were laid back in 1992, when the CSCE reached an agreement on the so-called Minsk Conference of 11 national representatives. When, over time, it became clear that no solution was to be arrived at in the near future, the establishment of the Minsk Group followed, and in 1996-1997 the institution of three co-chairs, comprising Russia, France and the United States, was finally formed. Within the Minsk Group, a number of concepts for conflict resolution were presented in 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2008, but none of them was ever implemented. Peaceful settlement was hampered by both the opposing sides’ differing visions of resolution principles, and the internal political situation in Azerbaijan and Armenia, including the attack on the parliament in Yerevan in 1999.
The 1994 Budapest Summit actively discussed the proposal to send a peacekeeping and observer mission to the conflict zone. The idea was not carried out due to controversy among the participants. Instead, a High-Level Planning Group with an unlimited mandate was created to provide the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office with recommendations on sending the organization’s peacekeeping forces to Nagorno-Karabakh. Although the HLPG continues with its annual speculations about possible scenarios for a peacekeeping/observer operation, little if any support for these ideas among the main actors prevents these proposals from being implemented.
In the absence of an observation mission, partial monitoring of the conflict zone began to be carried out by the Personal Representative of the Chair and his Office. However, the small size of the staff, the short duration of activities and the need for preliminary resolution of the disagreements between the parties seriously reduce the effectiveness of monitoring.
Thus, the OSCE mechanisms created the capacities for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis back in the 1990s, but fundamental political differences between Baku and Yerevan did not allow them to realize the potential. Meanwhile, lack of tools to prevent escalation led to the fact that the organization did not have any impact on the outbreaks of military confrontation in 2016 and 2020. And while the conflict was terminated 5 years ago due to the military stalemate, the 2020 ceasefire was ensured by the intervention of Moscow and the subsequent introduction of Russian peacekeepers.
The qualitative change in the balance of power and the active involvement of countries such as Russia and Turkey in the crisis resulted in the OSCE mechanisms losing their previous significance in resolving the conflict, and in order to maintain them, they had to find a new role in the changed conditions .
The OSCE in Resolving the South Ossetian Crisis: Mission Closed
The OSCE was involved in resolving the conflict in South Ossetia when the main mechanisms for its settlement had already been formed. This greatly influenced the work of the organization. The Mission was created in 1992 at Tbilisi’s initiative, after the Agreement on Principles of Settlement of the Georgian-Ossetian Conflict was signed, with the mission being accordingly integrated into the already established structures. The OSCE participated in the work of the Joint Control Commission (JCC), which included Georgia, Russia, North and South Ossetia, monitored the Joint Peacekeeping Forces, consisting of Georgian, Russian and Ossetian forces, and conducted ceasefire monitoring. The organisation also worked to find a solution to the conflict. The patrolling of the Russian-Georgian border, which has been carried out since 1999, was called off in 2005 at Moscow’s initiative.
However, the mission did not make a significant contribution to the resolution of the conflict, despite the achievements in certain humanitarian issues. This can be explained both by the aforementioned secondary nature in comparison with the already created structures and by a lack of support among the key political actors. In particular, the OSCE conflict resolution suggestions developed independently of the JCC were not supported by the parties. Already in 1994, South Ossetia rejected a proposal guaranteeing its autonomous status within Georgia . In August 2008, the OSCE monitored the development of the conflict, but did not play a significant role in its stabilization. Therefore, the mission was soon withdrawn due to controversy between Russia and the other member states of the organisation.
The OSCE Mission to Moldova: Small Steps Policy
The OSCE participated in the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict once its most acute phase had been overcome. In particular, the organisation was puzzled by the signing of a ceasefire agreement and the establishment of the Joint Control Commission (JCC), consisting of representatives of the armed forces of Moldova, Russia and the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. According to its mandate, the mission should assist in laying the groundwork for dialogue between Chisinau and Tiraspol, collecting information about the situation in the region, providing consultations, and encouraging negotiations on the conclusion of an agreement on the status of the PMR and the withdrawal of foreign troops. Late in 1999, the mandate of the OSCE mission was expanded with the additional task of “ensuring transparency of the removal and destruction of Russian ammunition and armaments”.
The participation of the OSCE mission in the settlement of the crisis is ensured both through observers and through involvement in the negotiation process. The OSCE, along with Russia and Ukraine, is a guarantor of the 5+2 format. Over 28 years, the mission has helped to resolve a number of issues, including the opening of traffic on the bridge across the Dnieper River near the village of Gura Bîcului, providing Moldovan farmers with access to plots in the Dubăsari District of Transnistria, recognition of documents and license plates, etc. However, one cannot speak of a substantial intermediary contribution by the OSCE to the conflict resolution process. Progress in this process can only be achieved by changing the policies of the leading actors. Thus, the proposals of the mission representatives on possible ways out of the crisis did not find support in Chisinau and Tiraspol (1993 Report No. 13 by T. Williams, Head of Mission, proposing a special status for Transdniestria) .
The OSCE and the Ukrainian Crisis: An Enhanced Role
Events in south-eastern Ukraine revived interest in the OSCE as a mediator in crisis settlement. A certain level of confidence in the organization on the part of Russia, Ukraine and the EU countries made the OSCE a multilateral platform where negotiations on a possible de-escalation of the conflict were conducted.
It was on the basis of the OSCE that the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) of representatives of Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE was formed with the participation of the unrecognized republics of the DPR and LPR. The TCG’s contribution to the negotiations was both the signing of fundamental documents outlining ways of resolving the crisis, including the Minsk Protocol, the Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements, the “Steinmeier Formula”, and the agreement on measures aimed at de-escalating the military situation, including the agreements on withdrawal of troops, ceasefires and the exchange of prisoners. It was the existence of this mechanism that made it possible to resolve a number of urgent issues fairly quickly—namely, to release the OSCE observers at the beginning of the conflict and to provide investigators with access to the crash site of the Malaysian Boeing-777. With the participation of working subgroups, the TCG develops and coordinates specific agreements. However, their signing requires the support of the Normandy Four, and the implementation of the coherent measures depends on the political situation. Thus, decisions on the disengagement of forces have repeatedly been frustrated and none of the fundamental settlement documents has been fully implemented.
The OSCE’s field experience in conflict zones allowed the organization to form a Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in a short time. The SMM’s mandate includes monitoring the situation in the region in terms of security, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and incidents, especially those concerning alleged violations of fundamental OSCE principles and commitments. The observers publish daily reports on the OSCE website for the participating States of the organization and the general public.
The number of OSCE observers has increased from 100 to 660 and, together with other international and local staff, to 1,270 over 7 years of conflict. The SMM contingent has been reinforced with modern equipment, including unmanned aerial vehicles. Table 1 clearly shows that the monitoring mission in Ukraine is many times larger than the contingents involved in conflicts in the neighbouring states.
Table 1. The size of OSCE monitoring missions, including locally hired staff
|Ukrainian crisis||South Ossetian crisis||Transnistrian crisis||Nagorno-Karabakh crisis|
|Size (largest and smallest value)||100–1270||8–183||8–53||6–17 (Office of the Personal Representative of the Chair)|
Source: Compiled by the author from OSCE open data.
The OSCE mission is sometimes criticized for bias by both Russia and Ukraine, although these reproaches from both sides may also confirm its relative neutrality. Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov expressed the hope that the OSCE would be impartial in monitoring the situation in Ukraine, noting that the Special Monitoring Mission should work with both Donetsk and Luhansk. This was announced at a meeting with A. Linde, Swedish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman-in-Office, on November 19, 2021.
The SMM’s limited ability to provide a complete picture of events is also a source of criticism. In particular, it concerns the ability to establish the ownership of military equipment and to investigate the shelling of populated areas . If one looks at the daily reports of the SMM and tables of ceasefire violations, it can be concluded that the documents do not specify the party that carried out the shelling and the explosions, which gives some space for interpretation.
Despite some negative assessments, the existence of the OSCE mission still makes it possible to at least partially control the implementation of the decisions made within the organisation. Besides, observers being present serves as a kind of deterrent preventing an escalation of the conflict. In particular, according to the SMM, in recent months its activities have facilitated the operation of the Donetsk Filter Station, which supplies water to 380 thousand people on both sides of the contact line.
The deployment of observers, initiated by Moscow, at two checkpoints of the Russian-Ukrainian border, Donetsk and Gukovo, is considered less effective. Russia refused to extend the observation mission in September 2021.
Thus, the OSCE mechanisms are quite successfully embedded in the general system of initiatives aimed at resolving the Ukrainian crisis. Strategic decisions are made at the state level, including in the Normandy Four. The TCG develops and signs specific measures, while the SMM monitors the implementation of OSCE decisions and the situation in the conflict zone. The position of states, as well as the external and internal political environment, are the determining factors in crisis resolution. Without them, decisions made at the TCG level will remain fixed only on paper.
However, the OSCE formats fulfil their important role. Firstly, working mechanisms allow a plan to be developed more quickly in case of a change in the political environment. Secondly, it makes it possible to faster come to a compromise in emergency situations. Third, the presence of both the TCG and the SMM can be viewed as obstacles to an uncontrolled escalation of the conflict.
The CSCE/OSCE has been accused of being ineffective and weak in crisis management across the post-Soviet space for almost three decades. However, it seems that this criticism has more to do with incorrect assessments of the role and capabilities of the organisation and the excessive expectations placed on it. The historical context of the institution’s establishment has determined its features. The OSCE cannot force peace or resolve a conflict without consensus among the participating states.
In many ways, this has led to the organization’s rather poor contribution to the settlement of the crises in Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia. However, the OSCE’s weaknesses can become its strengths amid growing mistrust between states. The need to reach agreement among the 57 participating states, while making the organization dependent on the political environment, reduces fears that the institution will impose the will of more powerful players on the states in the minority. It was this credit of confidence that allowed the OSCE to become a forum for negotiating a de-escalation of the Ukrainian crisis. Moreover, the organisation has had principal experience in shaping mechanisms designed to solve specific narrow tasks over the past decades.
The Ukrainian crisis has demonstrated progress in establishing monitoring missions. In other words, the OSCE can provide framework conditions for conflict resolution, but these must be in demand among the political actors in order to for the potential to be realized.
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